Thursday, July 04, 2013

The Tao of Wikipedia

Strange things sometimes happen to some tutors. They turn into large toothy dragons (think Game of Thrones but bigger, scalier and hotter), their scales glow molten red, and they unleash gobbets of green fire from their nostrils which incinerate any poor student standing in front of them, leaving only enough ash to be put into a small cup and made into Greek coffee to be served to their unsuspecting relatives. What did you do to deserve this? You uttered one small word: “Wikipedia”.

So what are the problems with Wikipedia? And is it ever permissible to use it in an assignment?

Wikipedia is a wonderful tool. If I want to know about a topic, I generally start with Wikipedia. If I want to know more, I follow the links from the Wikipedia article (and often there is more than one article), or I google. But quite often Wikipedia is enough. I have what I want to do. And it is nearly always accurate. Probably as often as academically authoritative publications - though that is subject to much dispute and febrile deployment of numbers. The problem for students using Wikipedia to rely on in academic assignments is the problem of authority. So the issue is what does authority mean and what counts as authoritative.

Authority is what an expert has - someone who has studied the field for many years and produced research and material that is valued by their peers. Authority is socially constructed - there is no absolute definition, no set of criteria by which we can all be impartially measured. That is one of the reasons why theories and ideas come and go. That is also why the pinnacle of academic achievement is not writing books as you might think. It is having articles published in peer reviewed journals. You write an article; it is vetted by other experts in the field and if, in their view, it passes muster, it gets published.

When we look at material in a book or an article, we want to know how reliable it is. We can do this by examining the text in itself. We ask for instance whether what is said is coherent - do all the bits fall into a structure that makes sense. We ask if it is comprehensive - do the statements or suggestions offered cover all of the examples in the field or just some of them. We ask if it is consistent - does it work the same way in different circumstances; are the conclusions followed through properly. That is the kind of thinking that you as students are supposed to be practising. We talk a lot about active reading, and you may have been listening when we talked about it. Active reading is always asking this kind of question of the text.

Authorship also matters, though. Not just what is said, but who said it. Authorship is a proxy for reliability in the text. If this text was written by an expert acknowledged by their peers, then we can assume reasonably safely that what is said on the page is reliable. We can use it to back up our ideas in the reasonable certainty that no horrible accidents will occur.

If we had the time, we would read every paragraph of every page with proper, active thinking attention. We would examine every word, every nuance. We would test everything. We do not have that amount of time. Also, very often, we do not have the necessary level of skill or knowledge to be able to test the material rigorously. So we rely on proxies. We assume that what is in an OU textbook or web page is authoritative. We assume that what has been said by an acknowledged expert, or what has been published in a reputable journal, is reliable. We can still disagree with it. I give a hearty inward - and sometimes outward - cheer when a student for the first time disagrees with something they have read in an OU text (and gives reasons). It shows they are thinking independently.

But here is the problem with Wikipedia. We can test the words on the page in the same way as we test the words on the page of a book. But we struggle when it comes to authorship. We can examine the history of the Wikipedia page, and we can see exactly who has written what. But that does not necessarily leave us any the wiser, as we have no idea who Chris Bloggs is or what their record of achievement in the field is. Most Wikipedia pages are in fact, I would argue, authoritative, certainly reliable enough for all normal purposes. For instance, much medical information is now available via Wikipedia that would not normally reach the general public, and is put there by people who know what they're talking about. (See “Wikipedia: Meet the men and women who write the articles”) But to use it as a source for an academic argument, you would need to test both the text and its author in a way which you will not usually have the time or the tools for.

The overall temperature of academic debate about Wikipedia is changing. Here is a list of articles about various aspects.  I think the academic world is gradually getting used to the idea that they cannot control knowledge, and certainly cannot control students. But the deal is that students need to learn, from day one, that they must use their judgement on everything they meet, not just on the web but everywhere. You should read Wikipedia critically: you should read everything else just as critically.

Much of the learning students do never gets into their assignments. That is a good thing; I would hate us to kill our students with test fatigue. In my view much vital learning is interstitial: it happens in the spaces between assignments, when learners are using their own resources and their own roadmap to direct their studies. But testing, particularly via assignments, is also a valuable learning tool - it provides for different kinds of learning, the kind where distillation, selection and the making of arguments come to the fore. For the purposes of in between learning, Wikipedia is brilliant, provided you treat it in the way you should treat everything you read, keeping your wits about you when you use it. For the purposes of assignment learning, it is best left behind, underneath the text you write, unless you are confident you can defend the reliability of the evidence you use from it. That would also be a kindness: it will prevent some of my colleagues from imploding.

No comments: